By Sandi Gohn

The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t made deployments to the Middle East any easier.

Between new social distancing rules and the temporary closure of public spaces on some installations, it is more challenging than ever for deployed service members to find approved ways to socialize with each other or take a break from the daily grind of serving on the front lines. But that doesn’t mean the need for genuine, social connection is suddenly unimportant or no longer there.

According to psychologist Susan Pinker, face-to-face social interaction is key to maintaining mental health and wellness. In fact, she notes that direct person-to-person contact activates the nervous system and releases neurotransmitters that help regulate the body’s response to stress and anxiety.

“When we communicate with people face-to-face, it could help to make us more resilient to stress factors,” she said.

And deployed troops have no shortage of stress factors, especially during a global pandemic.

“With everything happening across the world right now, our service members are under that much more stress while still being deployed away from their families,” said Tyler Krantz, USO Al Asad, Iraq center manager.

Under normal circumstances, this is where a USO center would come in handy, as it often serves as a hub for social gatherings, community-building programming and the occasional USO entertainment tour.

However, with the spread of the coronavirus, several USO locations in the Middle East have had to limit their in-person operations or temporarily close their doors altogether at the request of base leadership.

However, that doesn’t mean the USO has stopped finding new ways to boost morale and build community among deployed service members in the Middle East – including the delivery of top-notch entertainment to places like Al Asad through digital technology.

Bringing in the Star Power, Actor David Boreanaz

David Boreanaz talks via video chat with service members in Iraq. | Photo credit USO Al Asad

Although the USO Al Asad center is now temporarily closed, back in late March when the center was still open under limited operations, deployed service members had the unique opportunity to connect with “SEAL Team” actor David Boreanaz via video call. Although several of Boreanaz’s “SEAL Team” co-stars have had the opportunity to head on USO tours before and he co-hosted 75 military family members for a USO-sponsored screening earlier this year, this was the actor’s first USO tour experience.

During the cozy virtual chat, Boreanaz spoke with about 10 service members from various Army and Air Force units at Al Asad.

“[It] was a fantastic experience. I was able to just kind of talk to them for about a half hour and we just had a lot of fun,” Boreanaz said of his virtual USO tour on an April 8 episode of CBS’ “The Talk.”

“One of the guys was a New York Rangers fan and I’m a Philadelphia Flyers fan, so we’d banter back and forth … just to tap into them and see them and give them some love from over here and thank them was a terrific experience,” he said.

“But they’re doing well.”

A Virtual USO Tour to Boost Morale in Uncertain Times

One of the service members who participated in the video call, Air Force Staff Sgt. Drew Davenport, also a USO volunteer, is a long-time fan of Boreanaz. According to USO staff, it was also Davenport’s only day off the entire week and the day he found out his deployment in Al Asad was extended. He said the video call made not only his day, but his entire week.

“Getting the rare chance to personally speak with one of my favorite actors, who stars in my favorite show was an experience that I will never forget,” Davenport said. “David’s willingness to engage with me about the show was incredibly gratuitous and I can’t thank him enough.”

Another service member on the call, Army Spc. Tasia Blair, has been a fan of Boreanaz since he starred in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” and was glad for the opportunity to connect with the star during these uncertain times.

“As a behavioral health technician, I see firsthand how lack of morale can completely recolor one’s outlook on things - especially in such an austere environment,” she said. “David not only uplifted all of our spirits during a rough time, he also gave us a positive experience that we’ll be happy to share with our families and friends when we get home.”

During these moments of uncertainty, coupled with the distance and reality of deployment, simple things like virtual USO tours can truly make all the difference to troops.

“Our deployed service members are feeling even more isolated and worried about their loved ones back home,” said Colleen Lynch, USO Southwest Asia director of operations. “Having virtual USO entertainment events like this are vitally important to morale on deployed bases in the region.”